Did he ever expect to be at Clemson for a sixth season?
“No,” Thomas said, beginning to smile. “I did not think that at all.”
There was no reason for Thomas, considered a top-5 prospect in the 2018 recruiting class, named a freshman All-American in his first fall, and then All-ACC as a sophomore, to think he would be sitting by an orange-colored mic as he went into the 2023 season. He expected to be an NFL rookie before he ever had a chance to be a college senior.
This is extra time for a pass-rusher known for his quick burst off the line. But, surprisingly, there is an ease to how Thomas explains his current situation.
“Definitely wasn’t in my plan, but God’s plan is always bigger than ours,” Thomas said. “So I always keep that first.”
There are incredibly high hopes for what a healthy “XT,” removed from the innumerable ups and downs of the last three seasons, can bring to an otherwise green Clemson defensive end room.
There are expectations. But Thomas doesn’t seem worried or anxious, unlike the XT who had a big freshman year and then got distracted.
Thomas is down to 243 pounds, the lightest he’s ever been, but defensive ends coach Lemanski Hall doesn’t just reference the term in that way.
“He just looks lighter, in terms of focus, not worried about anything,” Hall said. “He’s leading our group. He’s taken on a leadership role. He’s never had to do that before. And he’s embraced it.”
Thomas never expected to be a sixth-year senior, surrounded by a freshman-laden group of edge-rushers, the inverse of what he experienced in 2018 as a pupil of Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell. He never expected to be in a position where he’s teased for being “old,” turning 24 just before Christmas.
But the journey made this version of “XT,” who doesn’t espouse an urge to register double-digit sacks, but to win a national title. His bout with illness and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he ballooned to nearly 300 pounds, equipped him with perspective.
That helped him deal with breaking his foot twice in what was supposed to be his breakout fifth-year campaign, first during fall camp, and then shortly after a two-sack performance at Boston College, and still keep his focus.
The second break was cruelly mundane. He got up after a play in practice, jogged off, and the bone just snapped. It hadn’t yet healed all the way from the first break.
“It was frustrating, but I had already been down before,” Thomas said, referencing his 2020 experience. “It really wasn’t nothing too much that got me down, in regards to I knew I could come back from it.”
Dabo Swinney dishes on conference realignment as Clemson fall camp opens
Thomas has layered maturity, first cutting out sweets from his diet in 2021 and slimming down to 264, and then taking it down to 254 ahead of last season. The foot broke, twice, but time without football allowed him to concentrate even more on his diet. He lost another 10 pounds — and got down to 10 percent body fat.
Never has Thomas been in better shape, but he is lacking recent success. Since he racked up 18.5 tackles for loss in 27 games as a freshman and sophomore, Thomas has 11.5 TFLs in 22 combined games. Thomas has 14.5 career sacks, but he’s never had more than 3.5 in a season.
He could have turned pro, but probably would have been nothing more than an undrafted free agent and camp invitee.
“In my eyes, I really haven’t played football in three years, in regards to playing the way I can really play,” Thomas said. “To be able to play again, and fully healthy, playing at my best self, is definitely relieving.”
Some rust was expected as Thomas returned this fall camp, though he knocked a good portion of it off in the offseason, hitting the field himself, running through drills shirtless but with a helmet on his head.
No one is questioning Thomas’ speed. Not even linebacker Barrett Carter, who can reportedly run a 40-yard dash in the 4.4-second range.
“He always says he’s faster then me. I’ll never willingly admit to that,” Carter said, “but he may be. He can flat out move.”
Even if Thomas won’t say it, Carter said he believes XT has a chance to leave Clemson with the school record for sacks in a season. He’s that explosive.
Plus, opposing offenses will have other concerns. Clemson’s interior line returns fifth-year seniors Tyler Davis and Ruke Orhorhoro, who both received second-round NFL draft grades this offseason, according to coach Dabo Swinney. And they are adding a heralded freshman in Peter Woods.
“They are going to have a decision to make,” Thomas said, “because there’s a lot of talented guys we have.”
The talent level on this defensive line reminds Thomas of the 2018 season; now, he’s the old man of this group, not the freshman who thought he was just a couple of years away from the NFL.
But a long journey has gifted Thomas words to impart. Don’t rush it, he tells the freshmen. God’s plan is always bigger, he tells himself.
Thomas has picked a word for the year, and it’s “gratitude.”
“Just grateful to be able to play this game, knowing what I went through,” Thomas said. “Being able to play it again, really just grateful for it.”

Latest Player Notes

How Wisconsin athletes are benefiting from a unique NIL deal with Madison's Exact Sciences

Feb 17, 2024MJ Hammill entered what can be a scary time of an athlete’s life in mid-December.She went into the volleyball ...

Mike Griffith: Texas is Georgia's primary focus this offseason

February 16, 2024The Georgia Bulldogs face three SEC contenders on the road next season in Alabama, Texas and Ole Miss. According ...

Navigating a season that could see Texas play Georgia more than once

February 17, 2024The Texas Longhorns and Georgia Bulldogs will play in Austin on Oct. 19. It may not be the only time they ...

After some key departures from the team, Dykes got busy in the portal this offseason.

5:11 PM on Feb 16, 2024Biggest unanswered question: Who will emerge as the clear WR1?Before last season, Williams was the ...

How Louisville football coach Jeff Brohm balances transfer portal, high school recruiting

Louisville Courier JournalCollege football used to buzz on the first Wednesday in February, but Louisville football's office ...

Bob Asmussen | Illinois defense counting on linebackers to plug the gaps

College Football Reporter/ColumnistCHAMPAIGN — A new linebacker coach is in place at Illinois, and Archie McDaniel said he ...

Where Alabama’s quarterback group stands before spring practice

Alabama football’s offense is going to look different this season. Kalen DeBoer has replaced the retired Nick Saban as head ...

Why did AJ McCarron return to the St. Louis Battlehawks?

When AJ McCarron joined the resurrected XFL last year, the former Alabama All-American hadn’t played since suffering a knee ...

Colorado football self-reported 11 minor NCAA violations from Deion Sanders’ first year with Buffs

1/26/2024The Colorado football program has self-reported 11 minor NCAA violations since the hiring of head coach Deion Sanders ...

What Steve Young said about today’s NFL quarterbacks

By Jackson Payne Steve Young may have enjoyed a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, but that doesn’t stop him from feeling just ...
See More Player Notes